I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. Not exactly a ramen mecca, but times change. Ramen's profile is ever-growing and in 2011 "celebrity chef Jonathan Sawyer" (that's according to his bio, I guess he's on tv or something) opened NoodleCat, Cleveland's first ramen house.
Hometown ramen! I couldn't wait to try it and finally got my chance over the Christmas holidays.
My sister and her husband gave me the scoop on the shop but... didn't have many good things to say, actually. But they admitted they didn't know much about ramen and couldn't even remember what kind they ordered. So, ever optimistic, I planned to order the most basic, representative bowl possible. I mean, boil the stock, balance the soup, cook the noodles appropriately, use good toppings, how bad could it possibly be?
We'll get to that.
It was a cold, windy December night when I met two of my cousins at NoodleCat just off Public Square in the heart of downtown Cleveland. It's a fantastic location and I was hungry. A promising start.
The interior wouldn't be out of place in downtown LA. Modern and warehouse-y, dark colors and benches akin to Wurstkuche. I ordered a beer but discovered that I must have left my driver's license in my luggage. Despite the fact that I'm33 years old, our server, an overly loud fellow, wouldn't let me order a drink without ID. Strike one, NoodleCat.
I'm kidding, it's totally my fault.
A quick scan of the menu showed three ramen options: "College Ramen" (chicken broth), "Szechuan Ramen" (which I initially hoped was a tantanmen, but was just a spicy ramen), and "Takahashi Ramen" (garlic pork broth).
The last one looked like a winner. "Garlic pork broth"... must be tonkotsu, right?
Our server used the word 'we' and 'I' a lot when going over the menu, so I wondered if he might be one of the owners and could answer some of my ramen questions.
I asked him if the Takahashi Ramen was Hakata-style. Simple enough, right? It was like talking to an anvil. He mumbled his way through a made up answer so I just asked if it was a tonkotsu. Same response, no real information. I didn't bother with any other follow-ups and just ordered the Takahashi Ramen, which looks like this.
It was the worst ramen I have ever eaten. I wish I was making that up.
If the menu had read, "Noodle soup with pork broth and pulled pork" then maybe, maybe I could have accepted it as a unique cuisine and something I would simply not order again. It's not like it tasted bad.
But to label it "ramen" and then deliver this bowl? Sacrilegious.
According to the website the noodles are made to NoodleCat's specifications by Ohio City Pasta, an artisan noodle manufacturer. That may be true, but if the noodles are so overcooked as to be mushy -- as mine were -- it doesn't matter where they come from.
The broth was so bad I don't even know where to begin. It doesn't matter what cuisine you grew up eating -- there's soup in every culture, right? So most anyone in the world would know if a broth was missing a little salt, right? Not at Noodlecat. It wasn't porky, it wasn't garlicky, and it didn't even have enough salt. That's like Soup 101. Bland as can be, I'd bet they either boiled pork for no more than a couple hours or they diluted the broth to a ridiculous degree.
It was extremely oily though. I can still feel the film on the roof of my mouth.
The toppings were sparse: a sheet of nori, some shaved green onion, and a hilarious soft boiled egg that, while properly cooked, wasn't marinated in soy sauce. It was just a plain egg! I've never seen that before. So it was bland too.
In a nod to the Northeastern Ohio palette, the final topping was pulled pork (in lieu of slices of chashu). It was easily the best part of the bowl. I would have been perfectly happy to see that midwestern touch on an otherwise delicious bowl, but to have the topping play the lead was just sad.
You might think I just got a bad bowl (and sure, maybe it was an off-day), but my cousin ordered the "College Ramen" -- the chicken broth one, so presumably it's a different stock altogether. But it tasted equally poor, too oily and strangely lacking any sort of balance or appropriate flavor.
NoodleCat has an extensive menu and I'll bet most of it is just fine. And don't forget, it's not like the ramen tasted bad or off-putting, it just didn't taste like any other ramen I've tried, and at best was just a boring bowl of soup.
I really wanted to like NoodleCat. Chef Jonathan Sawyer seems like a great guy with the best possible intentions -- sustainable farming, locally sourced ingredients, genuine love for his hometown -- and as a Cleveland native I know my city needs more chefs like him and more shops like NoodleCat. But I'm telling you, as a dude with a borderline ramen obsession, who as of this writing has eaten somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 bowls ranging from New York to Tokyo, unfortunately this one may have been the worst.
Chef Sawyer, if you ever read this, I know what I ate is not what you envisioned. I've read your bio, some articles, and watched a couple videos featuring you and it's clear you are a true ramen aficionado. Please figure out what's going on -- I would love nothing more than to visit again and have a truly great bowl in my hometown.
*Last photo from clevescene.com
**Will dreams of Tokyo but currently downs his ramen in Los Angeles. When he’s not hunched over a bowl of tonkotsu or tending his garden you can find him playing shows around town with his band. This post was originally published in The Ramen Shaman.